At this point, I’m going to say, “Not very.” Ratings are down again, since the novelty factor of Steven and J.Lo has worn off, and while this year there are some viable contestants who have caught my eye, no one actually looks current/commercial or capable of making themselves that way.
Idol was exciting its first few years. It produced a real star right out of the gate, and while her being the first winner probably helped *a lot*, Kelly also has undeniable talent and a good sense of who she is. She’s also capable of changing when necessary. The next year generated controversy, interest and a very popular runner-up who actually broke a few records along the way. As it happens, Clay was not able to stand the test of time, but there was no way of knowing that then. So there was real buzz around him, too.
It faltered a little the third year, because the winner was in a relatively small genre, but it also produced Jennifer Hudson, who would go on to win an Oscar, rendering her seventh place finish irrelevant. And it still generated talk.
And then came the fourth year – a popular number two, but one who fell away (due to illness among other things) after the victory of their first true superstar. Carrie Underwood knew she was country, fought to stay country and won – and now she’s one of the queens of the genre. She worked hard for this and earned it. One thing in her favor is that country fans don’t care where you originate – a bar or a game show – so long as you’re authentic and you’re good. Which I respect about them. But also, she sings whats in her heart, and that shows. I’m not actually a fan, but she deserves to be recognized.
So we have two real stars in four years, plus at least one person who seemed like he was going to be one. American Idol was making careers. Maybe not for everyone, and maybe not for all the winners, but it was making careers.
And season five broke it all to pieces. Oh, it produced a real star, one recognized among the top three of Idol alumni, but that star didn’t come in first OR second. Chris Daughtry came in *fourth*. He also showed that you don’t have to sing the music as given, but can make it your own. The only thing he lacked, because the rules forbade it, was a guitar. One other thing he did – he ROCKED. He looked totally out of place on that Idol stage and never made it his own, but he lived his music. But his coming in fourth, and having the most successful of the remaining three be the guy who came in THIRD (Elliot is doing quite well overseas) showed something was wrong – somehow, America wasn’t voting for the best at all. America seemed to have another agenda.
And since then? Ratings reached a peak in season five, and the winner of six, who is a lovely young woman with a powerful voice, was a teen-ager at the time, and while she’s done well, she’s not reached stardom. She has some international fame, so she may have broken the bubble, but she’s not doing better than well. And that season felt very manipulated by a lot of viewers, which turned them off.
Season seven was interesting – I believe it had some of the deepest talent ever. It was also the first year instruments were permitted, and that would change everything. American Idol audiences like seeing their singers hold guitars – I’m not sure why. Maybe it shows they’re not “just” singers. I don’t know.
The winner – uncontested even with a popular number two – was an excellent singer and musician and he can write a decent song, too. But even with a couple of hit songs and a tour that never stopped, David Cook couldn’t break free of the Idol bubble. Part of it was that his genre had peaked on popular radio, but part of it was that Idol was considered, well, cheesy. He has yet to release a second album, and we have no idea where he stands, but currently he has little impact on the radio and zero buzz. His runner-up’s second album tanked and David Archuleta was dropped from his album. That year is almost a cipher despite the deep talent.
Season eight. Oh, season eight. It has a breakaway star who, if he manages to survive his own second album, I believe will be an international superstar. He’s already an international star. It also had four people signed to major labels. One has been dropped, one is doing well in an unexpected genre, one is Adam Lambert and one….won. He had a hit and an album whose sales are better than they look, given the market today. He also has two other singles that tanked. One never even got started. And what he is is an inoffensive, even cute, white Christian married guy who plays the guitar, piano and viola, who can do some song rearrangements and write a decent song. But that style of rock-pop is pretty crowded right now, and he didn’t make an impact outside the Idol bubble.
Adam is an anomaly who owes his rise to Idol, but also to his own abilities and the fact that he generates buzz and stands out for all sorts of reasons.
Season nine was full of people who sang and played guitar and/or piano, who believed that number three was good enough and who didn’t get anyone to care. One of them – another white guy with a guitar, however different he sounded from the others – won. And no one CARED. Because Idol doesn’t matter. The boot song never got played on the radio and with one exception, the appearances didn’t help the singers. Even the finale was more a good-bye to Simon than a victory for Lee DeWyse. Rating dropped precipitously, the contestants were boring or unpleasant and no one cared.
Idol has made itself all but entirely irrelevant. It’s not anyone’s fault – the show has been on too long and has generated its own gravity and fandom that doesn’t concern itself with the future of the contestants. Many don’t care after the show is over and most don’t buy music.
It’s not about creating a superstar or a star or even a singing career. It’s about the game now. It would be nice of one of the kids this year gets something real out of it, but I’m not holding my breath, because the voters don’t care. They just want their guy or girl to win.